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The battle inside the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church has historically been one of the most powerful institutions in Australia, influencing both sides of politics.

The Catholic Church has historically been one of the most powerful institutions in Australia, influencing both sides of politics.

But now the Church is in steep decline with dwindling congregations and fewer and fewer donations. 

In response to its current crisis, a once-in-a-century meeting is being organised to discuss the future of Catholicism in Australia.

This plenary is pitting church reformists against conservatives, with Cardinal George Pell making a surprise return to the country to try and influence the debate.

Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe on the influence the Catholic Church has on Australia, and the battle for its future.

 

Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe.

 
Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY: 

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

 

The Catholic Church has historically been one of the most powerful institutions in Australia, influencing both sides of politics. But now, the Church is in steep decline, with shrinking congregations and fewer donations. 

 

In response to this current crisis, a once in a century meeting is being organised to discuss the future of Catholicism in Australia. This plenary is pitting church reformists against conservatives, with Cardinal George Pell making a surprise return to the country to try and influence the debate.
 

Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe, on the influence the Catholic Church has on Australia, and the battle for its future.
 

It’s Thursday September 30. 

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

RUBY:  

Mike, George Pell made a surprise trip back to Australia recently. What exactly was he doing here?

 

MIKE:
Yes he definitely came in under the radar. He was here for a couple of months and flew out again a couple of weeks ago. So the official reason for his visit has been shrouded in secrecy. But according to my sources, he was here in substantial measure to corral support for the conservative wing of the Catholic Church who are facing a push from more progressive elements to reform some of the church's key functions. And this is all happening in the lead up to the first plenary council meeting, which is basically a conference of Catholics to discuss potential reforms to the church. And it's the first one that's taken place in more than 80 years to discuss and then vote on reforms to the rules of the church, you know, rules that govern the lives of millions. And so, um, the suggestion is that Pell was here, as one put it to, you know, stiffen the spines, a bit of the conservative element of the church to make sure that there wasn't too much change. 

 

RUBY:
OK, so George Pell returned to Australia in the lead up to this plenary, which is about discussing the future of the church in Australia. So why is this discussion and this vote, why is it happening now for the first time in 80 years? 

 

MIKE:
Well well, the Catholic Church is in a bit of trouble, I guess you'd say. You know it's an enormously powerful institution, it's influenced politics for a century. It has substantial influence on what might be called the religious right of the major parties, particularly the coalition parties, but also Labour to some extent. 

 

Archival Tape -- Tony Abbott:
“Jesus wouldn’t have put his hand up to lead the Liberal party… [laughter]”

 

Archival Tape -- Tony Jones:
“But someone who believes in the principles that he espoused did do that, so it's a legitimate question.”

 

Archival Tape -- Tony Abbott:
“Look Jesus was the best man who ever lived…” 

 

MIKE:
And it's enormously wealthy after Westfield, it's the biggest non-government owner of property in value terms, 30 billion odd dollars worth. Pays no tax on that, of course. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“It's a big business, one of the wealthiest entities in Australia.” 

 

MIKE:
It's also Australia's largest non-government employer, you know, through its schools and its hospitals and its aged care and its other social works. So it's rich and it's influential, but as everyone in the country would now know, it's undergoing a crisis, in large measure because of the findings of the royal commission into child sexual abuse

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“More than 600 children have been abused by priests since the 1930s.”  

 

MIKE:
But even before then. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“Country towns and regional communities were once the wellspring of the devout.” 

 

MIKE:
People are abandoning Catholicism in droves. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“But aging and disappearing congregations are prompting some church groups to cut masses, others are offering new services.” 

 

MIKE:
First up, ever few people are identifying as Catholic, we see that in every census. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
The church says the number of practicing Catholics has fallen by a third in the last two decades. 

 

MIKE:
And that decline is particularly steep among young people. Secondly, and perhaps even more significant, even those people who still identify with the faith, you know, still say they're Catholic when they tick the form, no longer actually have much engagement with the institution. Mass attendance, according to the church's own survey, was around 75 percent in the 1950s. And now it's just a little over 10 percent. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
Congregations have been declining probably in line with community...

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
Masses have been cut and more are expected... 

 

MIKE:
Third one is that the church is running out of priests. The numbers have dried up. And then, of course, the final aspect, which I guess flows from the other three, is financial. As a result of the lack of trust in the bishops, that’s stemming from the sex abuse scandal and the cover up and the broader failure to engage with the faithful, you know, fewer bums on seats in the church, the money tap's been turned off. The Catholic Church is literally, slowly dying. So that sparked a debate in the church to discuss what kind of direction it should take to try and reach more people and to revive its relevance, I guess you would say. 

 

RUBY:
Right. So this is all about the Catholic Church trying to work out how to hold onto its power at a time when it's facing declining influence. 

 

MIKE:
Yes, in an attempt to respond to this crisis, progressives in the church have been pushing for a plenary council for quite some time. It took a long time to get here. Until recently, the leadership of the church was unwilling to confront the issues. They resisted for more than a decade. It was first proposed in 2007 that there should be a plenary, but that was knocked back by the bishops. The same happened in 2011 in the face of the growing scandal about sex abuse of children by priests and the cover up. The reform group Catholics for Renewal wrote to the bishops, arguing the church had lost its way and it was about time. It had a good, long look at itself. 

 

Archival Tape -- Mark Coleridge:
“A plenary council means that it's not just a talkfest or another meeting or a big conference. It's a gathering of the whole church in a real sense under the influence of the Holy Spirit…”

 

MIKE:
And then finally in 2016, at the urging of the Archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge.

 

Archival Tape -- Mark Coleridge:
“People have said to me, what's the theme of this plenary council? Well, the theme is the future of the Catholic Church in Australia.” 

 

MIKE:
He bolded up and the other bishops reluctantly agreed. 

 

Archival Tape -- Mark Coleridge:
“We have to make decisions about the future. We have to make them together and we have to make them under the influence of the Holy Spirit.” 

 

MIKE:
So it’s happening.

 

RUBY:
OK, so it's finally happening after all of these delays, do we know what is going to be discussed exactly, Mike? 

 

MIKE:
Well, a lot of things, at least if the church rank and file have their way, because when this was first mooted, the church put out a call for submissions. They asked a simple question, you know, what do you think God would want us to be doing in Australia at this time? And they got 17,500 submissions representing the views of of 220,000 odd people, so it was a big, big response and there were a lot of issues raised, you know, and a lot of these were issues that the progressives in the church have been pushing for years, issues like women's rights, women's representation, matters of sexuality, contraception, sex before marriage, same sex marriage, potentially married priests. So there's a lot of things that were put on the agenda by all those all those submissions. So the plenary council could be a once in a century opportunity to change some of the mediaeval, you know, doctrines and teachings of the church. 

 

But when the agenda for the plenary was published, those issues weren't really there in any meaningful sense. The whole thing had been boiled down to a series of dot points, you know, essentially a one page document in very anodyne, non-specific terms. And the worry is that the plenary process has been set up in a way that will yield no change. 

 

RUBY:
We’ll be back after this.

[Advertisement]

 

RUBY:
Mike, we're talking about the Catholic Church and this historic meeting that's about to take place, which could set the path for the church's future in Australia. It sounds like the things that progressives in the church have been pushing for are not being recognised. So can you tell me a bit about that? How is the church leadership approaching this? 

 

MIKE:
Well, you can get a good sense of that. By the way the Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, who I think you would say has replaced George Pell as the leader of the conservative wing of the Catholic Church in Australia. How he began his homily on Sunday mass at St. Mary's Cathedral a couple of weeks ago...

 

Archival Tape -- Anthony Fisher:
“What were you arguing about together on the road, the lord asks.” 

 

MIKE:
And in his homily, Bishop quoted Mark's gospel about how Jesus taught his disciples the error of their ways. And Jesus said, if you want to be first, put yourself last.

 

Archival Tape -- Anthony Fisher:
“And if you really want to be first, put yourself at last. Amongst the gentiles, the rulers lorded over them. But it must not be so among you, whoever wishes to be great among you must be the servant.”  

 

MIKE:
And the lesson of this, Fisher said, was that there should be no more squabbling over power. And that for Christians, authority was about service, not control.

 

Archival Tape -- Anthony Fisher:  

“And that the hierarchical structure that serves them is divinely instituted. Assuming secular accounts of power. And aping secular models of governance.” 

 

MIKE:
But then he went on to say, talking about control, that the current hierarchical structure of the church was divinely ordained. And then he accused those who want to reform, that may give lay Catholics a greater say in the way the church runs, of aping secular modes of governance. So there was no mistaking the point of the parable. It was a warning shot directed towards those who had a mind to reform the church, that any change that diminished the power of the clerical elite would be fiercely resisted. 

 

RUBY:
OK, so it sounds like there is a lot of resistance then to any change within the church and that the current leadership is going to go to great lengths to preserve the status quo. So therefore, it's likely that things will remain the same. 

 

MIKE:
I mean, I don't want to make predictions here. I mean, this isn't this hasn't happened in 80 years. And clearly among the laity at least, there's a mood for change. But it does seem likely that not much will change. The hierarchy in this country is very conservative, but it's not just about Australia. You know, there's a split in the church across the world and indeed in the Vatican, you know, between the more progressive elements and the reactionary elements. And so even if the bishops here wanted to change things, there's really only so much they can do because many of the issues are considered matters for quote the universal unquote church ie the church around the world.

 

Archival Tape -- Francis Sullivan:
“There’s been a lot of calls, rightly, for better participation of women at the governance, but also the ministry level in the church.” 

 

MIKE:
Francis Sullivan, who's the man who was responsible for coordinating the church's response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, he said this to me, you know, they can't change the law that says women can't be priests, for example. You know, that's a universal thing, doesn't pertain just to Australia. 

 

Archival Tape -- Francis Sullivan:
“Bishops will shake their heads and say we can’t do anything about that. That's rubbish. They can let the plenary council vote on it. And then they can take that vote to Rome on behalf of the Australian Catholic Church and not be cowered simply because it sounds too hard.” 

 

MIKE:
But if the bishops here had a mind, they could petition for that sort of thing in Rome because it comes down to how much spine the bishops have.  

 

Archival Tape -- Francis Sullivan:
“It’s for the bishops to step up, to listen to what the people are saying and then to take forward and show a bit of spine, even if it means going to Rome and asking for some changes to the universal law.” 

 

MIKE:
You know, people's views have changed and the church is under pressure to change as well. 

 

RUBY:
And Mike, despite the declining numbers that you mentioned before and this fear that obviously exists within the Catholic Church, that they might be losing some of their power, they are still very influential in Australian society. So what does it mean if the church does ignore this more grassroots push for reform in favour of its conservative elements? Will we see a flow-on effects in the political and cultural decisions that are made in this country? 

 

MIKE:
Well the interesting thing here is that when you look at how the factions break down, the reform minded Catholics tend to be concentrated in the service provision part of the church, you know, working in the schools, the hospitals, the charities, the welfare agencies. The conservative wing, you know, the clerical hierarchy holds great sway in politics. And it also has a powerful voice in the media, particularly the Murdoch media. I mean, our former colleague, Richard Ackland, used to call The Australian the Catholic Boys Daily. And it was a pretty apt descriptor. So there's this schism where we have the bulk of the laity, I think you might say, on one side. And then we have the elite with a lot of institutional power. But institutional power is always based on the consent of the governed.

 

And all the indicators, you know, the declining numbers identifying as Catholic, the plunging rates of church attendance, the collapse in numbers entering the priesthood. These things all show that the church leadership is fast losing its authority among the faithful. And I think the concern here is, certainly the concern amongst those seeking reform. And I think it's a reasonable one, is that a plenary that achieves little or nothing will result in this long decline in the church's relevance, being further accelerated by simple disappointment in the flock that, you know, they hoped for something and nothing happened.

 

Bad result or no result, I think actually has the potential to make things worse and accelerate the decline. 

 

RUBY:
Hmm. Mike, thank you so much for your time. 

 

MIKE:
Thank you so much for talking to me. 

 

[Advertisement]

 

RUBY:
Also in the news today... 

 

The United Kingdom’s High Commissioner to Australia has warned it will be very disappointing’ if Scott Morrison doesn’t attend the upcoming climate talks in Glasgow. The UN climate conference is scheduled to take place in November but the Prime Minister’s office has confirmed that a decision has not yet been made on whether he will attend the talks.

 

And a Covid-19 outbreak has hit the Melbourne office of the CFMEU a week after violent protests were held there. Several staff have tested positive to the virus and the union headquarters have been listed as a tier 1 exposure site. Union officials fear the outbreak could grow as hundreds of construction union members self isolate for 14 days including secretary John Setka.

 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

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